Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Out with the old...

The past few days I have been trying to organize my thoughts into something profound enough to measure up to even the most hastily prepared posts offered by my kin thus far on this site. First, I started to compile a list of the most talent featured in an NBA playoff series since 1998, but knew my research would pale in comparison to John and Dave’s All-Time Alumni Rankings. Then I set out to analyze the Bonds trial, but was sure that Charlie would rip into it unless my thesis was more developed. These posts may yet come to fruition, but my first had to be better. The Collective has set the bar sky-high.

Impenetrable Darko
But yesterday I visited one of the sites that has inspired me most as a sports writer and fan, only to find its suicide note – FreeDarko.com bid farewell. For those of you not familiar with this haven of NBA insight, FreeDarko was a collective of writers more interested in the culture and aesthetic of professional basketball than All-Star appearances or nightly box scores. It was a site dedicated to the narrative of a basketball game, season, or career – to the intersection of style, personality, race, class, money and athleticism that amazes us each night from late October to mid June. The writing was remarkable, recreating this game that we love in a fantasy world of hyper-academia and athletic artistry. The authors used pseudonyms like Bethlehem Shoals, Brown Recluse, Esq., Silverbird 5000 and Dr. Lawyer Indianchief. They relished the fact that in the 21st century, an NBA fan could watch every team play and could discover beauty even where ESPN told you not to: Monta Ellis’ ruthless stoicism, Gerald Wallace’s unfiltered energy, the supreme legend of Hakeem Olajuan. These guys brought something entirely different...and they named their site after the worst draft pick in NBA history!

Think Mao would have gone for
FreeDarko's praise-the-individual ideal?
I remember when my brother bought me their first book, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. I had visited the site several times before but was stunned when Charlie handed me the FreeDarko equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book. Glorious illustrations, revelatory prose and a foreword by Gilbert Arenas, all tied together by a manifesto enumerating the values this Collective held in the highest esteem when it came to NBA fandom. It was beautiful. It is beautiful. And now that I think about it, it’s still in the hands of my cousin Dave who’s had it since November, when I bought FreeDarko’s second tome, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. As a follow-up to the critically acclaimed, wildly innovative Almanac, the Undisputed Guide provided readers with the group’s interpretation of the pro game’s history. It’s likely that every word in the book is disputed by every basketball writer, historian and fan alive, but the FreeDarko Collective made it known that its version of history was not up for debate. After all, how can you argue with someone when you’re not speaking the same language?

That was the thing about FreeDarko: they changed the conversation. For so long, the variations to the standard sports column have been limited to two options: A) Make contrarian statement and defend it no matter how flawed the reasoning, and B) Fawn incessantly over athlete/team/small-town one-armed middle school golfer (At least 60% of Rick Reilly’s articles since 1992). But with FreeDarko, sports commentary was no longer limited to adversarial jockeying. Instead, they reached out into the depths of hip hop culture, of literature, of social science to describe a game we thought we knew. Luckily for all of us, the popularity of those two books and the blog have turned the members of the collective into new media superstars. So while the site may get boarded up soon, you can find Shoals all over the internet, and Big Baby Belafonte, the site’s chief illustrator, recently completed a billboard in LA that is truly breathtaking.

I remember the first time I read FireJoeMorgan.com, a treasure trove of systematic sports journalism skewers, and felt as though I had opened up the secret door in the attic (is that the right phrase?). The guys behind that blog, a well-educated collective who turned out to be the writers and producers of such shows as The Office and Parks and Recreation, didn’t just curse the idiocy of ESPN’s biggest baseball analyst. They actually used literary devices, comedy and advanced statistics to prove that the Worldwide Leader in Sports was feeding us dog crap at least three nights a week. When FJM bowed out of the blogging game in 2008, I mourned the loss of a pioneer. Yesterday was not dissimilar. And so it is with the departure of one inspiration that I debut here, eager to join a new Collective that has already set a pace worthy of its namesake.


John Hendrie said...

This is amazing. A proper send-off.

Charlie Widdoes said...

Very well done, Sum.

As for Bonds, I can sum it up for you: It's a bunch of assholes in the government giving a big fat middle finger to the tax-paying public by wasting our money and their time for the sole purpose of fighting a disingenuous moral battle that only exists in their minds. Minds would rather demonize today's players than accept that every generation had cheaters, even the ones the grew up cheering for (worshipping).

These are the same assholes who would tell you we should be mad at Manny Ramirez. They should just chill and read FreeDarko and The Collective!

Sumner Widdoes said...

I couldn't agree more, Charlie, which is why, from a legal standpoint, it seemed like they brought the worst case the possibly could have. The prosecution's best witness was Arthur Ting, who completely contradicted its second best witness, Bonds' former business manager. But this was the same Art Ting who has sold roids before and whose kids got kicked off the USC football team for juicing. It's almost like these attorneys didn't care enough to win this case, they just found themselves in court one day sitting across from the best hitter in history because John McCain had to save face after the Army finally let gays come out of the closet.

John Hendrie said...

I love how perfectly on-point you guys are on the steroid issue. Not that i doubted it, RFH blood and all.

McCain being McCain. Congress being Congress. Barry is a top-3 hitter ever. Let him live. If the Hall doesn't let anyone in from a 25-year period then they are digging their own grave. It's a historical museum deliberately omitting a quarter-century of history. Sweet decision. Guess what, all the guys that played back in the day were cheaters too. Get off your high horse.

Anonymous said...

Gents...help an "old schooler" out here...As one who cheered Barry Bonds in his early days at Three Rivers...as one who with great difficulty can begrudgingly understand how the Bondses and Maguires and Sosas existed a culture of "if he is going to do it I have to as well", there still has to be some rule of law. If you are going to praise the lawbreakers as great baseball players (and don't get any of us started on the NFL/Track and Field etc.) you have to also acknowledge that they did knowingly break the rules of their sport at the same time. Great baseball players, yes...knowing violators of the rules, again yes. Men of great character as a result I say a resounding no...should that keep them from being recognized by their sport...that is the question.

Sumner Widdoes said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I understand your frustration with this topic, and specifically what appears to be the Collective's generation's view about the steroid era. Without speaking for anyone else, the fact is, this is the baseball that we grew up with and all of a sudden, sports writers -- those that vote on the Hall of Fame -- want to discredit 15-25 years of stunning performances that they themselves applauded because those performances were TOO good. I wasn't around to see Mantle, Clemente, Koufax or Aaron, but I know that the baseball players I grew up watching were truly spectacular, so I am not only more willing to forgive, but also to defend an era in which steroid use was likely the norm. In my mind, it would be a shame for the league not to recognize these players' immense talents and their profound contributions to the game, both in revenue and, more importantly, in popularity following the 94 strike.

Charlie Widdoes said...

Sam makes a good point, but according to a lot of pretty credible resources, guys were cheating by taking greenies long before steroids became an issue in baseball.

But that's not the point here. Steroids and baseball and the Hall of Fame and even writers on high horses are all discussion-worthy topics, but this Barry Bonds case in simply a pathetic waste of time and money. My money, your money, everyone who is paying taxes. You are damn right he is a jerk, but does that mean the government needs to spend valuable resources to punish him for lying about the ways he tried to get better at playing a game? A game.

To those who point out that Bonds committed a crime, I would point to a question and answer from the great Keith Law's chat today:

Eric (Memphis)

The Bonds litigation was expensive, but people do understand that perjury and obstruction of justice are serious crimes, right?


I think if the underlying crime had been something serious, like a violent crime or embezzlement or issuing mortgages to people who could never hope to repay them and then packaging them into securities to be sold to pension funds, then people (myself included) would have viewed the Bonds trial differently.